Alien AstronoMysteries

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At the end of the spring semester, my academic adviser told me about Alien AstronoMysteries, a Penn State science summer camp to be held in the last week of June.

Brendan Mullan, the camp director, is a graduate student in our astronomy department. In April, he won the National FameLab Astrobiology Competition, which is designed to find the best science communicator among young scientists in the United States. 

Alien AstronoMysteries investigates various topics from astrobiology. Extremophiles, habitable zones, exoplanets - yup, count me in.

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Above: buttons with art by Nahks (our department's Instructional Designer), handed out on the last day of camp

I have never volunteered for any camp before; I have never actually been to camp. Besides being their age at some point, I share limited interest with the group of students from 5th through 8th grade. But because we all like science, it wasn't a problem at all.

The camp lasted for five days, and I got to participate for four.

Day 1 - "What is life, and how do we find it?"

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For this day, I helped out with The Microbe Museum, an activity with four different stations to explore extremophiles, organisms which thrive in conditions too extreme for most life on Earth. The station I was in charge of examined Tardigrades under the microscope.

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Also called "water bears," tardigrades can be found in moss. However, if there is no water, or if the environment is too extreme, tardigrades can shut their metabolism down and enter a state called cryptobiosis. They are then able to survive temperatures of up to 151°C (304°F) or down to -200°C (-392°F). The state of cryptobiosis also allows resistance to harmful radiation and the vacuum of space.

Through these stations, students learned that simple forms of life are quite capable at survival. Complex life like humans is much more delicate, and conditions need to be just right.

Day 2 - "Life and our solar system"

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For this day, I first helped out with The Scale of the Solar System. We took the students out to the lawn in front of Old Main and modeled a scaled version of the solar system. The Sun was a 8.5-inch diameter circle and Mercury was the tip of a silver pin. The distance between the Sun and Mercury was 10 steps. We walked and set up the planets up to Jupiter, which was 125 steps away from Mercury. By this point, we had to stop because Saturn would take another 112 steps, and we were running out of lawn-space. It's always fun to get a sense of scale.

In our scaled system, the nearest star from our Sun is halfway around the world. Betelgeuse, at an actual distance of over 600 light-years, would be out to the Moon.

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Betelgeuse - Source

The speed of light was about 1 inch per second in our scaled system, and having the students act out the speed of light was the most amusing. Some attempted to walk at that pace for 8 minutes, the time it takes for light from the Sun and get to Earth.

The second activity I helped out with was another station. "Cratering Through Time" involves dropping golf balls in containers of rice, flour, and fresh-made oobleck. (Things got a bit messy.) Students learned that having the Moon may have protected Earth from additional cratering, extending their list of what could make a planet habitable.

Day 3 - "Stars in the Milky Way"

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This day I took the students to the Old Main lawn again for "Stellar Evolution in Action." Considering that I learned stellar evolution during the semester, the kids are not that far behind. 

We ordered pictures depicting various stages of a star's life and sorted out the evolution of low-mass (Sun-like) and high-mass stars. The students, split up into two groups, will either act out the life of a low-mass star or the life of a high-mass star.

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Because screaming and running away to become a supernova seemed to be the highlight, everyone got to play a high-mass star at the end.

 Day 4 - "Detecting exoplanets"

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The two events I signed up for took place in a computer lab. We explored three links, which you should feel free to play around with:

- Kepler Exoplanet Transit Hunt: This link took us through the discovery of a transiting exoplanet to the analysis of its orbit, size, and temperature.

- Extreme Planet Makeover: This link let us change various parameters (distance from star, size) of a planet so that we could make it Earth-like or habitable.

- Planet Families: This link allowed us to build solar systems. You can even throw in multiple stars to witness the devastating effects on planets. One popular variation consisted of a star orbited by a bunch of Saturns.

Between my two events, I had about half an hour to kill while the kids went outside for a different activity. I decided against staying in a computer lab by myself and joined them in Nebular Sharks and Minnows. Adding "nebular" in front of anything seems to establish a decent amount of intrigue, and while Brendan was explaining the premise of the game, I realized that this activity might be my favorite of the entire camp.

Nebular Sharks and Minnows essentially mimics planetary formation. The "sharks" will capture the "minnows," and the "minnows" have to stay with their "shark." Together, they represent a growing planetesimal. I was so excited; after all, "planetesimal" is the name of this blog!  

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Above: The "sharks" are on the move to gravitationally capture some "minnows"

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Above: One of the planetesimals

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 Day 5 - "Life in the universe"

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I didn't get to stick around for this day, but I know that the kids dabbled with ways of communicating across the Galaxy. The main message they decrypted was the Arecibo message I mentioned in a previous post!  

After hearing about Alien AstronoMysteries, do you think you would have attended? I know I would have.

Visit here for a photo gallery from our camp.

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The buttons are so creative and looks really great.I am totally impressed especially by that with the Milky way.

Wow, the buttons look amazing. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

Very cool! An easy way we can all help to promote astronomy is by visiting

Hi ! I´m a astronomer in Brazil and I am researching in the last decades for life out of earth . I think that exists many life forms than we don´t know in the universe but our technology is not enough to detect or go to study . Not now, but in the future maybe (and i imagine that certainly ) we will have a better technology that helps to find this.

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